The Waste Land

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2004
Poetry for Students
From: Poetry for Students(Vol. 20. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Poem explanation; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography
Pages: 21
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 246

The Waste Land

T. S. Eliot

Because of his wide-ranging contributions to poetry, criticism, prose, and drama, some critics consider Thomas Sterns Eliot one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. The Waste Land can arguably be cited as his most influential work. When Eliot published this complex poem in 1922—first in his own literary magazine Criterion, then a month later in wider circulation in the Dial—it set off a critical firestorm in the literary world. The work is commonly regarded as one of the seminal works of modernist literature. Indeed, when many critics saw the poem for the first time, it seemed too modern. In the place of a traditional work, with unified themes and a coherent structure, Eliot produced a poem that seemed to incorporate many unrelated, little-known references to history, religion, mythology, and other disciplines. He even wrote parts of the poem in foreign languages, such as Hindu. In fact the poem was so complex that Eliot felt the need to include extensive notes identifying the sources to which he was alluding, a highly unusual move for a poet, and a move that caused some critics to assert that Eliot was trying to be deliberately obscure or was playing a joke on them.

Yet, while the poem is obscure, critics have identified several sources that inspired its creation and which have helped determine its meaning. Many see the poem as a reflection of Eliot's disillusionment with the moral decay of post–World War I Europe. In the work, this sense of disillusionment manifests itself symbolically through aPage 247  |  Top of Article type of Holy Grail legend. Eliot cited two books from which he drew to create the poem's symbolism: Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance (1920) and Sir James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890). The 1922 version of The Waste Land was also significantly influenced by Eliot's first wife Vivien and by his friend Ezra Pound, who helped Eliot edit the original 800-line draft down to the published 433 lines. While The Waste Land is widely available today, perhaps one of the most valuable editions for students is the Norton Critical Edition, which was published by W. W. Norton in 2000. In addition to the poem, this edition also includes annotated notes from editors and from Eliot, a publication history, a chronology, a selected bibliography, and a collection of reprinted reviews from the 1920s to the end of the twentieth century.

An attempt to examine, line by line, the specific meaning of every reference and allusion in The Waste Land would certainly go beyond the intended scope of this entry. Instead, it is more helpful to examine the overall meaning of each of the five sections of the poem, highlighting some of the specific references as examples. But first a discussion of the poem's title The Waste Land is necessary. The title refers to a myth from From Ritual to Romance, in which Weston describes a kingdom where the genitals of the king, known as the Fisher King, have been wounded in some way. This injury, which affects the king's fertility, also mythically affects the kingdom itself. With its vital, regenerative power gone, the kingdom has dried up and turned into a waste land. In order for the land to be restored, a hero must complete several tasks, or trials. Weston notes that this ancient myth was the basis for various other quest stories from many cultures, including the Christian quest for the Holy Grail. Eliot says he drew heavily on this myth for his poem, and critics have noted that many of the poem's references refer to this idea.

Author Biography

Eliot was born September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a bright and hardworking student, who experienced a classical, wide-ranging education. Eliot studied philosophy and French literature at Harvard. He also joined the staff of the university's literary journal, the Harvard Advocate, in which he first published parts of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In 1909 he graduated from
T. S. Eliot T. S. Eliot
Harvard with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, and he finished his master's degree in philosophy a year later. Over the next six years, he pursued further graduate studies in philosophy at a number of institutions in the United States and Europe, including Harvard, the Paris Sorbonne, Marburg in Germany, and Merton College, Oxford, ultimately completing his dissertation in 1916.

During the period of his studies, he met two people who would prove to be influential to his writing. The first was fellow poet Ezra Pound, who became Eliot's friend, mentor, and editor. The second was Vivien Haigh-Wood, whom he met and married in 1915 while studying in England. He and Vivien settled in London the same year, but they experienced a troubled relationship from the start, due in a large part to Vivien's neurotic illnesses. The dark tone of Eliot's poetry during the 1910s and 1920s is often attributed to his marriage. In 1915 Eliot started teaching at a London boys' schools, High Wycombe Grammar School, and continued his teaching the next year at Highgate Junior School, also in London. In 1917 Eliot left teaching to work in the Colonial and Foreign Department at Lloyds Bank in London, a position he held until 1925. At the same time he became assistant editor of the Egoist (1917–1919), in which he published Prufrock, and Other Observations (1917).

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In 1921 the combined strain of his marriage, his bank job, and his writing and editing pursuits led Eliot to have a nervous breakdown. He recovered at a sanitorium in Switzerland, where in 1922 he completed his poem The Waste Land. Upon his return to London the same year, Eliot became the founding editor of the literary journal Criterion, at which he remained editor until 1939. At the suggestion of Pound, who also helped him in the endeavor, Eliot edited The Waste Land from about 800 lines to 433 before publishing it in late 1922, first in Criterion, then a month later in another literary journal, the Dial. The poem, which is largely credited with helping to launch the modern literature movement, shifted Eliot from a poet who was only moderately in the public consciousness to a poet who was alternately praised and vilified.

In 1925 Eliot left Lloyds to work as a literary editor at the publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber & Faber). In 1927 he became a naturalized British subject and a member of the Anglican Church, at which point, his work began to change thematically, addressing more religious issues. During the 1932 to 1933 academic year, Eliot was invited to Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. This physical separation from his wife, who stayed behind in London, ultimately led to their divorce.

During the 1930s Eliot began devoting much of his writing time to lectures and literary criticism, publishing such landmark works as The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England (1933) and After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934). Just as The Waste Land and Eliot's other works in that era helped to usher in the modernist period of literature, his critical work in the 1930s and 1940s is commonly acknowledged as a major catalyst for the rise of the New Criticism movement in England and the United States.

Also in the 1930s, Eliot wrote several plays. One of his first plays, The Rock: A Pageant Play (1934), was commissioned by the church and was overtly religious in its themes. His next play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), was also commissioned by the church, and it is widely considered Eliot's most successful play.

Eliot wrote his last four major poetic works in the 1940s: East Coker (1940), Burnt Norton (1941), The Dry Salvages (1941), and Little Gidding (1942). Collectively these works were published as The Four Quartets (1943). In 1947 Eliot's life underwent another profound change, when his ex-wife died after having spent several years in an institution. Eliot met Valerie Fletcher, who became his secretary and eventually, in 1957, his wife. Unlike his previous marriage, Eliot was notably happy in this relationship.

In 1948 Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and the English Order of Merit. These and many other awards, along with Eliot's general popularity as a dramatist, made the author a noted literary and public figure until his death and beyond. Eliot died January 4, 1965, in London, England, of emphysema and related complications.

Poem Text

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering          5
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,          10
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,          15
Marie, hold on tight. And down he went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,          20
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,          25
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.          30
  Frisch weht der Wind
  Der-Heimat zu
  Mein Irisch Kind,
  Wo weilest du?
"You gave me Hyacinths first a year ago;          35
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"They called me the hyacinth girl."
—Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,          40
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,          45
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.          50
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.          55
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.          60
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.          65
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: "Stetson!
"You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!          70
"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
"O keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
"Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!          75
"You! Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!"
The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out          80
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion.          85
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended          90
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,          95
In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale          100
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
"Jug Jug" to dirty ears.
And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms          105
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.
Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.          110
"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think."          115
I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
"What is that noise?"
The wind under the door.
"What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?"
Nothing again nothing.          120
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.          125
"Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?"
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It's so elegant
So intelligent          130
"What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
What shall we ever do?"
The hot water at ten.          135
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself,          140
Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
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He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,          145
He said, I swear, I can't bear to look at you.
And no more can't I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don't give it him, there's others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o' that, I said.          150
Then I'll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
If you don't like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can't.
But if Albert makes off, it won't be for lack of telling.         
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can't help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It's them pills I took, to bring if off, she said.
(She's had five already, and nearly died of young George).          160
The chemist said it would be all right, but I've never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won't leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don't want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.          170
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.          175
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;          180
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear          185
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse          190
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat's foot only, year to year.          195
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter          200
They wash their feet in soda water
Et O ces voix d'enfants, chantant dans la coupole!
Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc'd.          205
Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants          210
C.i.f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.          215
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives          220
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun's last rays,          225
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.          230
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent's clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,          235
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;          240
His vanity requires no response,
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And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall          245
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;          250
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
"Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand,          255
And puts a record on the gramophone.
"This music crept by me upon the waters"
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,          260
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
and a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of lonian white and gold.          265
The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails          270
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach          275
Past the Isle of Dogs.
Weialala leia
Wallala leialala
Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars          280
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores          285
Southwest wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towers
Weialala leia          290
Wallala leialala
"Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe."          295
"My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised 'a new start.'
I made no comment. What should I resent?"          300
"On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing."          305
la la
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest          310
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea          315
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,          320
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying          325
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience          330
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were only water amongst the rock          335
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit          340
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses          345
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water          350
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing          355
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water          360
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Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman          365
—But who is that on the other side of you?
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth          370
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna London          375
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings          380
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.          385
In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.          390
Only a crock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain          395
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
DA          400
what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed          405
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA          410
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours          415
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded          420
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?          425
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins          430
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

Poem Summary

I. Burial of the Dead

The first section, as the section title indicates, is about death. The section begins with the words "April is the cruellest month," which is perhaps one of the most remarked upon and most important references in the poem. Those familiar with Chaucer's poem The Canterbury Tales will recognize that Eliot is taking Chaucer's introductory line from the prologue—which is optimistic about the month of April and the regenerative, life-giving season of spring—and turning it on its head. Just as Chaucer's line sets the tone for The Canterbury Tales, Eliot's dark words inform the reader that this is going to be a dark poem. Throughout the rest of the first section, as he will do with the other four sections, Eliot shifts among several disconnected thoughts, speeches, and images.

Collectively, the episodic scenes in lines 1 through 18 discuss the natural cycle of death, which is symbolized by the passing of the seasons. The first seven lines employ images of spring, such as "breeding / Lilacs," and "Dull roots with spring rain." In line 8, Eliot tells the reader "Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee." The time has shifted from spring to summer. And while the reference to Starnbergersee—a lake south of Munich, Germany—has been linked to various aspects of Eliot's past, to Eliot's readers at the time the poem was published, it would have stuck out for other reasons, given that World War I had fairly recently ended. During the war Germany was one of the main opponents of the Allied forces, whichPage 253  |  Top of Article included both the United States and England—Eliot's two homes. By including German references, which continue in the next several lines and culminate in a German phrase, Eliot is invoking an image of the war. Who are the dead that are being buried in this section? All the soldiers and other casualties who died during World War I.

The German phrase leads into a conversation from a sledding episode in the childhood of a girl named Marie. The season has changed again, to winter. Marie notes, "In the mountains, there you feel free," implying that when she is not in the mountains, on a sledding adventure, she does not feel free. In other words, Marie feels trapped, just as humanity feels trapped in its own waste land. In line 19 Eliot starts to give some visual cues about the waste land of modern society. "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?" the poet asks. In response, Eliot refers to a biblical passage, addressing the reader as "Son of man." The poet tells the reader that he or she "cannot say, or guess" what the roots of this waste land are, because the reader knows only "A heap of broken images" where "the dead tree gives no shelter." These and other images depict a barren, dead land. But the poet says in line 27, "I will show you something different." In lines 31 to 34 Eliot reproduces a song sung by a sailor in the beginning of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Eliot is inviting the reader to come on a journey, a tour of this modern waste land. The song—which asks why somebody is postponing a journey, when there is fresh wind blowing toward a home-land—indicates Eliot's desire to regenerate this barren land. In fact his use of the word "Hyacinths," which are symbolic of resurrection, underscores this idea.

In line 43 Eliot introduces the character of Madame Sosostris, a gifted mystic with a "wicked pack of cards," or tarot cards. She pulls the card of "the drowned Phoenician Sailor," another image of death and also a direct reference to a fertility god who, according to Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, was drowned at the end of summer. Again these images collectively illustrate the natural cycle of death. Following the Madame Sosostris passage, Eliot, beginning in line 60, introduces the "Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many." These lines suggest a similar description of the modern city by Baudelaire. The image of brown fog is dismal, as is the next line, which notes "I had not thought death had undone so many." Eliot here is describing a waking death. These people are alive in the physical sense, but dead in all others. It is a sad city, where "each man fixed his eyes before his feet."

In line 68 Eliot notes there is "a dead sound on the final stroke of nine," which refers to the start of the typical work day. In other words these people trudge along in a sort of living death, going to work, which has become an end in itself. Within this procession, however, the poet sees someone he knows, "Stetson," who was with the poet "in the ships at Mylae!" Mylae is a reference to an ancient battle from the First Punic War, which by extension evokes an image of death on the civilization scale. The poet asks his friend if the "corpse you planted last year in your garden" has "begun to sprout?" Here again Eliot is invoking the idea of resurrection, and of the natural cycle of death and life. First, when dead people decompose, their organic matter fertilizes the ground, which loops back to the first line of the section, in which April, "the cruellest month," is breeding flowers, which presumably are feeding off this decomposed flesh. But in a more specific way, this passage refers to Frazer's book, which details a primitive ritual whereby in April these primitive civilizations would plant a male corpse, or just the man's genitals, in order to ensure a bountiful harvest. This harvest, which can be interpreted symbolically as the rebirth of civilization, is potentially threatened by "the Dog," which has been interpreted as the lack of meaning in life.

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Media Adaptations

  • Eliot's The Waste Land and several other works were adapted as an unabridged audiobook in 2000, featuring narration by the author. T. S. Eliot Reads: The Waste Land, Four Quartets, and Other Poems is available from HarperAudio.

Critics interpret the dog this way largely because of the final lines of the section, a quote from Baudelaire, which indict the reader for his or her part in creating the waste land by sucking all meaning and, thus life, out of society.

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II. A Game of Chess

In the second section Eliot turns his attention from death to sex. The title of this section refers to a scene from Thomas Middleton's Elizabethan play Women Beware Women, in which the moves of a chess game between two people are linked onstage to the seduction played out by another pair. In the first lines of the section, Eliot creates a lush image of a wealthy woman, who sits in a chair "like a burnished throne." The scene also includes "standards wrought with fruited vines," a "sevenbranched candelabra," and "jewels." On the woman's table are "satin cases poured in rich profusion." Inside these cases are "strange synthetic perfumes," which "drowned the sense in odours." In other words aphrodisiacs (artificial substances used to create or enhance sexual desire). Since sex is linked to procreation, and thus fertility, the fact that aphrodisiacs are needed is telling. In this room there is also a painting above the mantel that depicts "Philomel," a reference to a classical woman who was raped (indicated by the words "rudely forced") by "the barbarous king" Tereus. Eliot notes that "other withered stumps of time," or figures from history, are depicted on the walls. Then he launches into several disparate passages, the first of which is a hysterical plea by the woman in the room to her lover. "My nerves are bad to-night," she says, and "Stay with / me." She also asks the man what he is thinking, and repeats the word "think" several times in both question and statement form, ending with a one-word sentence, "Think." Eliot is trying to get his readers to think about the modern waste land, which is clearly indicated by his multiple emphases of the word "think" and the fact that he sets it off on its own.

Eliot repeats this pattern in another snatch of dialogue, in which he emphasizes the words "noise," "wind," and "nothing." He sets off "nothing" in its own one-word sentence like "think," although as a question: "Nothing?" The wind and the noise evoke an image of activity and life, but the final "nothing" again underscores the lack of meaning that Eliot is trying to convey. Following this passage, Eliot includes a passage that talks about remembering the "pearls that were his eyes," which refers back to the dead Phoenician sailor from the first section. Finally, in the last passage that refers to the wealthy woman and her lover, Eliot has them talking to each other, asking what they should do. Ultimately they decide "we shall play a game of chess, / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon / the door." While this game of chess refers back to the sexual game from Middleton's play, the rich couple literally play a game of chess, since their relationship is sterile.

The next passage switches relationships, from the idle rich to the dirt poor. This scene, which continues until the end of the section, concerns "Lil" and her husband "Albert," who has just been "demobbed," or released from the military. The line "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME" is a reference to the last call at the pub, or bar, and indicates that they must hurry if they wish to drink. The poem talks about Albert, who has "been in the army four years" and who "wants a good time." In other words he wants to have sex with his wife. He has also given his wife money to buy "new teeth," because he cannot stand looking at her bad teeth. And, as Lil is warned, if she does not give Albert a good time, "there's others will." The line "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME" is used again, reinforcing the importance of alcohol in the relationship. The woman's appearance is described as "antique," even though she is only thirty-one, and she attributes this to "them pills I took, to bring it off," a reference to abortion. As the next line notes of her previous children, "She's had five already," a testament to Albert's immense sexual appetite, which is discussed further when Eliot says Albert will not leave the woman alone. But Lil is asked, "What you get married for if you don't want children?" This line refers back to the fertility thread in the poem and the fact that modern sex is not always about procreation. The section ends with several more references to "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME," showing that drinking has taken on more importance in the relationship than anything else. So, as with the first section, Eliot is showing the loss of meaning—in this case during sex, and through images of loveless sex—by showing that this is true for both the rich and the poor. Just as the king from Weston's book is wounded sexually, so is all of human society. It has lost the vitality and procreative focus of sex, and instead sex is a meaningless—and in the case of abortion, fruit-less—act.

III. The Fire Sermon

The third section also addresses sex. The title refers to one of Buddha's teachings about desire and the need to deny one's lustful tendencies. The images with which Eliot chooses to open this section underscore this idea of lovelessness. For example, "the last fingers of leaf / Clutch and sink into the wet bank." The dying vegetation is a sign of the death of fertility, as is the brown land and "The nymphs" who have departed. Also the factPage 255  |  Top of Article that the river bears no litter, such as "empty bottles," "Silk handkerchiefs," or "cigarette ends," all of which are a "testimony of summer nights"—in other words, signs of a raucous party—the image of lifelessness is enhanced. There is no youthful passion anymore. This feeling of despair is noted further through such phrases as "A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank." From here on, Eliot includes images and references to sex and death, including talking about "my father's death" and "White bodies naked on the low damp ground."

After a brief, four-line stanza in which he once again invokes the rape of Philomel, Eliot returns to the "Unreal City," the modern city, where he is propositioned by a "Mr. Eugenides" to have "luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole." These two locations, famous for clandestine meetings, indicate that Mr. Eugenides wants to have a homosexual affair with the poet.

Following this interlude, Eliot introduces the character of Tiresias, a mythological, prophetic figure who was turned into a hermaphrodite—indicated by the phrases "throbbing between two / lives" and "Old man with wrinkled female breasts." The fact that Tiresias is a prophet is important, since Tiresias can see the true nature of things. In Eliot's notes he calls this character the most important one in the poem. Tiresias witnesses a sex scene between a "typist home at teatime" and "A small house agent's clerk." The woman prepares food until the man arrives, and they eat. After the meal, "she is bored and tired," but he nevertheless starts to "engage her in caresses." Although these advances are "undesired," the woman makes no attempt to stop the man, so "he assaults at once," oblivious to the woman's "indifference." After the man leaves, "She turns and looks a moment in the glass / Hardly aware of her departed lover," her only thought being, "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."

At this point Eliot includes a long montage of scenes from London interspersed with many literary references to failed relationships through the ages. The indented passage that begins with the line "The river sweats" invokes a Wagner poem that describes the downfall of ancient gods. The section concludes with a quotation from St. Augustine's Confessions: "O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest." St. Augustine was a noted lecher in the days before he embraced religion. This passage is placed directly before the last line of the section, "burning." This one-word line refers to the Buddhist sermon that gives the section its title, and which encourages men to douse the fires of lust.

IV. Death by Water

The brief fourth section, the shortest of the five, starts off with a reference to "Phlebas the Phoenician," the dead sailor who was first mentioned in the second section. Eliot is again focusing on death, and in this section he gives a thorough description of the sailor's body being torn apart by the sea: "A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers." The section ends with an address and warning to the reader to "Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall / as you."

V. What the Thunder Said

The poem's final section builds on the images of death and sterility, but attempts to offer hope that these can be overcome, as they are overcome in the waste land of Weston's book. The title of the section is derived from an Indian fertility legend in which all beings—men, gods, and devils—find the power to restore life to the waste land by listening to what the thunder says. The section begins with a long discussion of Jesus Christ, "He who was living is now dead," which leads into scenes from Christ's journey to Emmaus following his resurrection, where he joins two disciples that do not recognize him: "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" one disciple asks the other.

Following the images of Christ, Eliot alludes to scenes of battle, "hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth." The dry earth refers back to the waste land. Eliot includes more images of war and destruction, noting the "Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air / Falling towers." The image is one of a castle being destroyed, and Eliot follows this image with a list of historical cities that were destroyed or that fell into ruin and decay: "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London." By including London at the end of this list, Eliot implies that the modern city is also falling into decay, a moral decay. From this description Eliot moves on to discuss "the empty chapel," a reference to the Chapel Perilous, which Weston's book describes as the final stage on the hero's quest to restore life to the waste land. At this point, "a damp gust" brings rain to the dry and cracked land, and then the thunder speaks, "DA." According to the Indian legend, men, gods, and devils ask the thunder the same question, and each is given a different answer—give, sympathize, and control, respectively. After each response, EliotPage 256  |  Top of Article includes several lines that respond to the thunder on these topics. Critics disagree on whether these responses are meant to be pessimistic or optimistic, but many feel they are Eliot's solution to restore life to the modern waste land.

In the last stanza of the poem, the Fisher King from Weston's book speaks: "I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?" The king wonders what the solution is, how he can bring life back to the waste land again. Eliot follows this passage with a line from an English nursery rhyme: "London Bridge is falling down falling down falling / down." These words take the work from the mythological world back to Europe, which also in Eliot's view is a waste land that is falling down. The poem ends with several phrases from different languages, which give a mixed message. Some discuss rebirth, while others discuss violence and death. The final line consists of the same words repeated three times, "Shantih shantih shantih," which Eliot and others have noted can loosely be translated as the peace which passes understanding, and which seems to be Eliot's final pronouncement—only through peace will humanity ultimately be able to restore its vitality.



There are only two master themes in the poem, which in turn, generate many sub-themes. The first of these major themes is disillusionment, which Eliot indicates is the current state of affairs in modern society, especially the post–World War I Europe in which he lived. He illustrates this pervasive sense of disillusionment in several ways, the most notable of which are references to fertility rituals and joyless sex. First Eliot draws on the types of fertility legends discussed in Weston's and Frazer's books. For example, in the beginning of the first section, he uses an extended image of a decomposing corpse lying underground in winter, which "kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / a little life with dried tubers." A tuber is the fleshy part of an underground stem, but here it is human flesh, feeding new plants. Human society is so disillusioned that it has undergone a moral death, an idea on which Eliot plays throughout the poem. In fact, in the second stanza Eliot offers a contrast to the first stanza, which at least offers "a little life." In the second stanza, however, the land is all "stony rubbish," where roots and branches do not grow, and "the dead tree gives no shelter," and there is "no sound of water."

Eliot also expresses disillusionment through episodes of joyless sex, such as through the example of Philomel, upon whom sex is forced. In fact Eliot employs a litany of joyless sexual situations, including the rich couple who would rather play chess than have sex, and the poor couple for whom sex becomes a way only of pleasing the husband, and even then, only if the wife has "a nice set" of teeth. There is no love in any of these unions, and in the case of the poor couple, the wife has started having abortions because she "nearly died of young George," one of her children. This purposeful killing of new life is another way Eliot shows how people are disillusioned regarding sex and how pro-creative power in many cases is lost. But perhaps the most prominent example of meaningless sex comes during the scene between the typist and the clerk. Following this joyless sexual encounter, in which the man satisfies his lust, he leaves the woman, who is "Hardly aware of her departed lover." Her indifference shows in her simple actions: "She smooths her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone." Her hand, like the sex itself, is "automatic," without emotion, merely a routine act.


The other major theme, restoration or rebirth, is the opposite of disillusionment. If modern society can somehow overcome its disillusionment, it will be restored back to a state in which life once again has meaning. This refers to the Fisher King myth from Weston's book. Yet throughout the poem, when this idea is referred to, it is generally handled in more subtle ways than the references that underscore the idea of disillusionment. For example, in the first section, "the hyacinth girl" speaks. Hyacinths are often associated with the idea of resurrection, which in the context of this poem is looked at as the goal. But as soon as he introduces the idea, Eliot counters it with an image of disillusionment: "I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing." The idea of restoration, in the form of resurrection, is not explored in detail until the final section, with the introduction of Christ. The final section begins with talk of Christ's betrayal and death and of "The shouting and the crying" of Christ's followers at his death. With Christ's death, "We who were living are now dying." Lost without their savior, Christians feel morally dead. ButPage 257  |  Top of Article all hope is not lost, for Christ is resurrected, and joins his disciples on the road. Unfortunately, just as with the blindness in the hyacinth girl passage, Christ's disciples do not recognize him. Ultimately, through his use of complicated and conflicting foreign quotations, Eliot ends his poem on this same noncommittal note. Restoration is possible, but so is disillusionment.



The most important aspect of the work, and the one that informs all others, is the literary movement to which it belongs, modernism, which this work helped define. Modernism is the broad term used to describe post–World War I literature that employs techniques Eliot uses in The Waste Land. These techniques, and all the techniques associated with modernist literature, expressed a rebellion against traditional literature, which was noted by its distinct forms and rules. For example, in traditional poetry, poets often sought uniformity in stanza length and meter. Those poets who could work within these sometimes challenging rules and still express themselves in a unique or moving way were considered good poets. But particularly after World War I, as literature and other art shifted from a traditional, romantic, or idealized, approach to an approach that emphasized gritty realism full of discontinuity and despair, artists began to experiment with nontraditional forms, ideas, and styles.

Disillusioned by the war, artists and writers such as Eliot rebelled against the logical, traditional thinking—which they believed helped start and escalate the war. Eliot's poem, in all of its complexity and obscurity, was like a catalog of modernist poetic techniques, including free verse, odd stanza lengths, snatches of dialogue, quotations from other works, phrases from other languages, indistinct transitions, conflicting ideologies such as Christianity and paganism, frank discussions and depictions of sexuality—and the list goes on. Each of these devices ran counter to the traditional. Collectively, as many critics have noted, the staggering modernistic effect of this one work set off a bomb in the public consciousness.

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Topics for Further Study

  • Find a painting, movie, or other visual artwork you think could serve as a companion piece to the poem. Explain why you think this pairing makes sense.
  • Research what life was like for soldiers during World War I. Imagine that you are a soldier in the trenches along the Western Front. Write a journal entry that describes your typical day.
  • Imagine that through time travel Eliot is able to visit your town for one day and that you have been assigned to give the poet a tour. Based on what you know of Eliot and what you know about your own society, write a story that describes Eliot's reactions to modern life.
  • Read another work by a different author who became disillusioned by World War I. Compare this work to Eliot's The Waste Land.

Historical Context

World War I

While Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, it was widely acknowledged as reflecting the disillusionment in Europe following World War I. This global war started from a regional tragedy. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, made a fateful trip to Sarajevo, capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina—two provinces under his family's control—where he and his wife were assassinated. These murders reflected a regional tension among some residents of the two provinces, which wished to become part of Serbia once again. Serbia, which also wished to reclaim Bosnia and Herzegovina, helped stage the assassinations. When this fact was realized by Austria-Hungary, the leaders of this nation state declared war on Serbia on July 28, exactly one month after the assassination. In times past this might have been a localized battle between two countries. But due to an extensive system of pre-existing alliances, most other European countries were pulled into the war, which escalated the conflict. Eventually the list of combatants grew to include the United States andPage 258  |  Top of Article parts of Asia, all of which aligned themselves with either the pro-Serbian "Allies" or with the "Central" powers, who supported Austria-Hungary.

When fighting began in August 1914, each side believed its modern weapon technologies such as hand grenades, tanks, long-range artillery, and poison gas would lead to a quick and efficient war, with minimal casualties. The reverse was true, and the war raged on for four years along two main lines, or fronts, of fighting. The Western Front, which ran through France, experienced some of the bloodiest battles in the war. The front was defined by an extensive trench that ran along its entire length, on both sides. Allied and Central soldiers occupied their respective trenches—which were often close to each other—and with a series of battles, each side attempted to drive their opponent out of his trench and force the line back with a flurry of grenades and machine-gun fire. The results were horrific. For years the battles in the trenches held at a virtual stalemate, and the body count rose as each side added reinforcements to maintain the trenches.

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Compare & Contrast

  • 1920s: In the aftermath of World War I, which introduced modern weapons and the psychological horrors of trench warfare, some people in the United States and Europe become shocked and disillusioned and turn away from religion.
    Today: In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C, on September 11, 2001—which introduced commercial airliners as a new type of airborne explosive—some people turn to religion to cope with the horror and disbelief.
  • 1920s: Although major military operations in World War I ended in 1918, the United States and the world continue to deal with the physical, financial, and psychological costs of the war. The U.S. Congress does not declare World War I officially over until July 2, 1921.
    Today: Although U.S. President George W. Bush declares major military operations in Iraq over on May 1, 2003, the United States and the world deal with the physical, financial, and psychological costs of ongoing battles against terrorists and other insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of the Middle East.
  • 1920s: Women embracing personal liberation, known as "flappers" in Britain and the United States, engage in many previously scorned activities, such as drinking and smoking in public, wearing provocative clothing, participating in wild dancing, and having promiscuous sex. Social critics become concerned about the effect on the family of this behavior along with the general relaxing of social morals.
    Today: Critics become concerned about the social and psychological effects of the rise in teenage sex activity. In addition, incidents of school homicide, such as the massacre at Columbine High School, spark a national debate about the safety of America's children, as well as what parents' roles should be in dealing with these issues.

The Lost Generation

By the time the war officially ended in 1918, an estimated eight million people were dead and countless more wounded. For the generation of men and women who came of age during or shortly after the war, life seemed bleak, and many of these young men and women became disillusioned or hopeless about their own futures and the sanctity of humanity. While this entire group was coined the Lost Generation, most critics today associate this term with a group of American writers who translated their disillusionment into a social protest, and in the process produced some of the greatest works of twentieth century literature. Many members of this group, which included Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, became expatriates living in Europe. Paris became a particularly noted hot spot where several budding authors benefited from thePage 259  |  Top of Article influence of more experienced authors such as Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Critical Overview

From the time it was published until the twenty-first century, The Waste Land has inspired both passion and hatred. Jewel Spears Brooker sums it up best in her entry on Eliot for Dictionary of Literary Biography: "The Waste Land was taken by some critics as a tasteless joke, by others as a masterpiece expressing the disillusionment of a generation. As far as Eliot was concerned, it was neither." As many critics have cited, Eliot viewed the poem as a catharsis, a way to release much of his frustration and stress that had ultimately led to his nervous breakdown.

Yet, while this is what Eliot said, his decision to include extensive notes with the poem, which identified the source of many of the poem's obscure or confusing references, seemed to ascribe great meaning to the poem. The author notes also invited negative criticism. Many critics, like Conrad Aiken, felt that Eliot's notes—and indeed, many of the references in the poem itself—were unnecessary. As Aiken notes in his now-famous 1922 review in New Republic: "Mr. Eliot's sense of the literary past has become so overmastering as almost to constitute the motive of the work." Aiken sees this approach as involving "a kind of idolatry of literature with which it is a little difficult to sympathize." As testament to the complexity and controversy of the poem, however, Aiken's overall review is positive. He notes that Eliot's focus on all of these references "has colored an important and brilliant piece of work." Yet, Aiken says that, when these "reservations have all been made, we accept The Waste Land as one of the most moving and original poems of our time."

In fact, the originality of the poem is key to understanding the divided reactions that it received. The poem is largely credited with helping launch the modern literature movement, a fact that cannot be understated and about which many critics speak in grand terms. For example, Nancy Duvall Hargrove says in her entry on Eliot for Dictionary of Literary Biography, the poem's "originality shook the foundations of the literary world." Likewise, in America James S. Torrens says, "A bomb-shell burst upon the world of modern poetry 75 years ago." And in his New York Review of Books
Proof page with markings on it for The Waste Land, from T. S. Eliots The Wasteland: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original, edited by Valerie Eliot Proof page with markings on it for "The Waste Land," from "T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original," edited by Valerie Eliot
review of the 1971 restored and expanded version of The Waste Land, Richard Ellmann says of Eliot, "Lloyd's most famous bank clerk revalued the poetic currency" with the initial publication of his poem.

Yet the aspects of the poem that make it "modern" also have led to the greatest amount of confusion and conflict among critics. As Helen Vendler says in her Time article on Eliot, the poem's many references focus on the past, but it is "a past so disarranged—with the Buddha next to St. Augustine, and Ovid next to Wagner—that a reader felt thrust into a time machine of disorienting simultaneity." This focus on the past seemed to be intentional, as John Xiros Cooper discusses in his book T. S. Eliot and the Politics of Voice: The Argument of 'The Waste Land.' Cooper says

Unlike the older generation, who saw in events like the Great War the passing of a golden age, Eliot saw only that the golden age was itself a heap of absurd sociopolitical axioms and perverse misreadings of the cultural past that had proved in the last instance to be made of the meanest alloy.

In other words, Eliot was rebelling against the tendency to glorify the past. He wanted toPage 260  |  Top of Article demonstrate that the past was gritty and real, especially the recent past events of World War I. By demythologizing the events of the past, Eliot forces his readers to focus on the grim realities of his post-war present.


Ryan D. Poquette

Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses the structure of the poem.

When Eliot first published The Waste Land in 1922, it caused a colossal stir in the literary world and in society in general. Eliot's use of nontraditional techniques, his gritty imagery, and the sheer incoherence of the work as a whole mystified, enraged, and enthralled readers and critics. As Helen Vendler notes in her 1998 Time article, "Modern poetry had struck its note." In fact, readers had never seen anything quite this modern before. The poem seemed to have a little bit of everything, and was much meatier than the other literary offerings of the time, and not just in Europe. Vendler notes that "Whether or not Eliot had written down the Armageddon of the West, he had showed up the lightweight poetry dominating American magazines." But even though every reference in Eliot's apocalyptic opus has since been documented, and one can begin to draw parallels among the poem's many pieces, most critics agree that these pieces will probably never be assembled into one cohesive whole. The poem's structure defies that type of interpretation.

When one discusses the structure of a modernist work like The Waste Land, it helps to break it down into two types, structure on a large scale and structure on a small scale. On the large scale, the poem has a clear structure. It is organized into five sections, each of which is numbered and labeled, almost in the style of a traditional poem. Yet, in her entry on Eliot for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jewel Spears Brooker says that these five sections, "by traditional standards, seem unrelated." The key word is "traditional." Part of the joy involved in modernist writing was in not playing by the traditional rules. Still, Eliot did not choose his structure on a whim. In fact, when viewed from a modernist perspective, one that emphasizes the rough sense of the poem, rather than its specific, objectifiable meaning, one can offer up an interpretation for Eliot's choice of large-scale structure.

The first section is "The Burial of the Dead" deals mainly with issues of death. The second section "A Game of Chess" deals mainly with issues of sex. The third section "The Fire Sermon" also deals with sexual issues. The fourth section "Death by Water" deals with issues of death. The final section, "What the Thunder Said," is mainly about resurrection or restoration, which may or may not be attainable. So, if one were to write out these general themes in order, it would go: death, sex, sex, death, possible restoration. One of the first noticeable aspects about this order is that the first four sections are symmetrical. The two sections on death bookend the two sections on sex, almost as if the second two sections are a mirror image of the first two. When a poet deliberately juxtaposes thematic material like this, it usually means something. This is especially true when a modernist poet imposes a distinguishable form on his or her poetry. This ordering of themes becomes even more suspicious when one looks at the length of the fourth section. When compared to the others, this is almost not a section at all. If Eliot had left it out, however, it would have destroyed his symmetry.

So what does this mean? Why is Eliot interested in this symmetry? To answer this question, it is first necessary to examine the small-scale structural techniques that Eliot uses in the poem. Again, if traditional analysis techniques were used, this reader would examine the poem line by line andPage 261  |  Top of Article stanza by stanza, searching for the connections among them. As James S. Torrens notes in his 1997 article on the poem in America: "How many undergraduates since 1922 have sweated their way through this labyrinth and come out dazzled, or completely dazed." The fact is, applying traditional analysis to the poem is a fruitless effort, for the poem exists not in the logical world, but in a world of indefinite reality, which disorients the reader.

But from Eliot's point of view, the reader needs to be disoriented. Society has become too stale and exists in a state of living death, where crowds of these walking dead file off to work, exhaling "Sighs, short and infrequent." Even the sighs of despair and disillusionment are "infrequent," because this society is lost and does not even have the energy to sigh. Eliot is attempting to shake up society and get people to, as he notes during the second section, through the mouthpiece of the rich woman: "Think." To do this, to shake up people and force them to think about the current state of society, Eliot structures his poem in episodes. On the small scale, these episodes help him hook readers, even as he disorients them. Within each section, Eliot divides the narrative into episodes that invoke aspects of the past, the present, and in many cases both. Time and place shift with little or no transition, like the clicks of a camera shutter. And as the poem progresses, Eliot clicks his poetic shutter rapidly, populating his bizarre landscape, his waste land, with a litany of historical and mythological figures. In this surreal, constantly changing setting, Vendler notes that Buddha is juxtaposed "with St. Augustine, and Ovid next to Wagner," illogical placements that defy traditional modes of thought.

This leads back to the reason behind Eliot's conscious choice to include a symmetrical large-scale structure. In the long scope of human history and experience, Buddha and Augustine are linked, as are Ovid and Wagner and the countless other seemingly contradictory pairings in the poem. By choosing Weston's myth of the Fisher King—a seminal myth that is thought to have ultimately influenced many religious stories, including the Christian quest for the Holy Grail—Eliot is indicating that they are one and the same, mirror images of each other. Likewise, Eliot's modern society and the other past societies refered to in the poem are also mirror images of each other, which is why he juxtaposes "Jerusalem" with "London," for example, and ultimately, why he chooses to make the first four sections reflect this mirror image concept.

However, the final section does not fit this symmetry, which makes sense too. This final section is also the most ambiguous. The first four are clearly about either death or sex. The fourth is about restoration, but it leaves the question of possible restoration open-ended, by providing mixed commentary at the end in the foreign phrases. Eliot offers some insight into this with the line directly before these foreign phrases: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." Some critics say that this statement is Eliot's introduction to the foreign phrases themselves, which are just fragments of thoughts. Others say that this is Eliot's commentary on the fragmentary nature of the entire poem itself. The latter interpretation seems to make more sense.

In his 1923 review of the poem for New Republic, Conrad Aiken sees the fragmentary, incoherent nature of the poem as its greatest strength and says that the work must be taken as

A brilliant and kaleidoscopic confusion; as a series of sharp, discrete, slightly related perceptions and feelings, dramatically and lyrically presented, and violently juxtaposed, (for effect of dissonance) so as to give us an impression of an intensely modern, intensely literary consciousness which perceives itself to be not a unit but a chance correlation or conglomerate of mutually discolorative fragments.

In other words, while readers familiar with traditional, neatly ordered poetry might look for the poet to tell them what they need to know, Eliot very shrewdly conceals his true thoughts behind his fragmentary structure, which ultimately reflects the chaos of the poet's modern, disillusioned society, even as its links it to humanity's shared past through its use of mirror image. Like the mythical quest hero who must undergo trials and assemble information to earn restoration, Eliot's readers must review the various, fragmentary pieces of the poem and pull from it the ideas that make the most sense to them. The important thing, as Eliot indicates, is to be engaged in this process in the first place. Because when people wake up from their moral stupor and start thinking about the current state of society, then maybe they will also be motivated to work toward improving it.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on "The Waste Land," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.

James Torrens

In the following essay, Torrens discusses the history of Eliot's poem and its literary impact.

A bombshell burst upon the world of modern poetry 75 years ago this November in the pages of the New York literary journal ThePage 262  |  Top of Article Dial—T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." The author had published this outpouring in England a month earlier in his own magazine, The Criterion; and in December, Boni & Liveright was to bring it out in book form, with the famous footnotes to fill out empty pages. A corporation lawyer in New York, John Quinn, put up $2,000 for The Dial prize of that year, an astonishing sum that relieved the author of the burden of medical and other expenses weighing on him.

The 434 lines of "The Waste Land"—in lengths and bunches that might seem totally random—thrilled and bewildered early readers. They found in it the following: stream-of-consciousness writing, sudden switches of scene as in film clips, motifs from classical and medieval myth, exposure of the libido a la Dr. Freud, music-hall rag, anxiety before the Bolshel vik menace and borrowings from the sacred books of East and West.

Robert Penn Warren remembered that "undergraduates were reading it all over the place, memorizing it." How many undergraduates since 1922 have sweated their way through this labyrinth and come out dazzled, or completely dazed. I confess to having led many of these expeditions, with sovereign and unwarranted self-confidence. The process is still worth recreating at this anniversary time.

"The Waste Land" comes in five parts, starting with "The Burial of the Dead," a name taken from the Anglican funeral ceremony. The famous opening line yields a shock: "April is the cruellest month." Quite a switch from that upbeat start of the most famous poem in English, "The Canterbury Tales," where the pilgrims set off to their shrine amid the unfolding panoply of spring. But the days after World War I were no time for medieval optimism. What Eliot wants to highlight is the pain of coming back to life.

The imagery and episodes of Part One evoke a person, indeed a civilization, numbed, distressed. Coherence and meaning have gone out of the world, as a prophetic voice with an Old Testament sound announces: "Son of man . . . you know only / a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / and the dead tree gives no shelter."

To convey a vague menace, and recreate the craze for spiritualism at the turn of the century, Eliot introduces "Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante," with her "wicked pack" of Tarot cards. She tells an implied hearer (the reader, actually): Your card is "the drowned Phoenician sailor." How ominous. He follows this up memorably with the sketch of London on a business morning, with all its robot workers pouring in to the office with an exhalation of sighs as if from Dante's "Inferno."

Early critics summed up "The Waste Land" as expressing the disillusionment of a generation. This interpretation galled the author, who claims he never had illusions to begin with, and who can be seen anxiously searching for any signs of life. The poem addresses a Londoner named Stetson sarcastically: "That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / has it begun to sprout? . . . Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to mend or with his nails he'll dig it up again!" What dog? Perhaps Anubis, the dog-headed god of Egypt who conducts the dead to immortal regions. All dogs love to dig up, of course. When Eliot wrote these lines, he was emerging from psychotherapy in Lausanne, Switzerland, which had forced him to dig up a lot of his own troubling history.

The poet, throughout "The Waste Land," puzzles over the apparent disconnection between sex and love, flesh and spirit. He does so through a recurring figure, the quester, as in medieval versions of the quest for the Holy Grail. The quester early on proves incapable of the romantic innocence offered by the hyacinth girl, with an armful of flowers.

Eliot calls Part Two "A Game of Chess," a metaphor for sexual maneuvering. He begins again by rewriting a classical set piece, the wide-eyed report by the soldier Enobarbus about the opulent queen Cleopatra on her barge, from Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra." Eliot gives us instead aPage 263  |  Top of Article pampered woman in her palatial bedchamber, immersed in anything that could arouse the senses ("synthetic perfumes," illustrations of a mythological rape). This passage, sumptuous but labored, shifts suddenly into Eliot's forte, a dramatic dialogue giving us the real measure of the jaded woman:

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  • Many critics highlight the fact that Eliot wrote The Waste Land while he was suffering a nervous breakdown. Another group of post–World War I writers disillusioned by the war, the surrealists, attempted to create literary works while their minds were in alternative states, a condition often reached by deliberate attempts to affect their consciousness, such as through hypnosis. The Magnetic Fields (1920), a series of prose poems by French poets André Breton and Phillipe Soupault, was created during one of these mental experiments, a marathon project that lasted eight days.
  • Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," first published in the magazine Poetry (1915) and later collected in Prufrock, and Other Observations (1917), is considered one of Eliot's most important works. Like The Waste Land, the poem mixes classical references with other modern images. The poem details the ramblings of the title character, a self-doubting man who is pessimistic about his future and the future of society.
  • In 1971, Eliot's estate authorized the release of a facsimile edition of the poet's original 800-line version of the poem, entitled, The Waste Land: A Facsimile of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. As the title implies, the book includes the original revision notes from Pound, but it also includes notes from Eliot's first wife and Eliot himself. This landmark edition, which includes an introduction by Eliot's widow, his second wife Valerie Eliot, gave critics and readers insight into the process used to create the 1922 version.
  • In his original notes to The Waste Land, Eliot states that he was inspired by Sir James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, which Frazer released in two volumes in 1890, then revised into a one-volume edition in 1922. Although popular in its day, this book, which attempts to explore the origins of magic and religion and their relevance to his modern world, came under critical fire in later years.
  • Ernest Hemingway is probably the best known of the Lost Generation group of American writers. Like The Waste Land, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) explores the post–World War I sense of disillusionment. In the novel, the protagonist, Jake Barnes, a World War I veteran, suffers from physical and psychological war wounds that greatly affect his life and view of the world.
  • While Ezra Pound is considered one the twentieth century's great writers, he never had a wide reading audience, in part because he spent much of his time helping nurture the fledgling writing careers of Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Robert Frost, and others. Yet Pound did produce one series of works, his Cantos, published in various pieces from 1917 to 1968 (for a total of 117 sections), which some consider a masterpiece. Like Eliot's The Waste Land, however, this ambitious work relies on chaotic, disparate techniques that turned off some critics and readers.
  • In his notes on The Waste Land, Eliot also cites the influence of Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance (1920), a book that explores the Grail legend of King Arthur and its relation to the recorded myths of ancient mystery cults and their fertility rites.

"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad.
Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak.
What are you thinking of?" . . .
I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
Page 264  |  Top of Article

At one time the author had thought of naming this poem after a line from Dickens, "He Do the Police in Many Voices," in the spirit of English parlor games with their popular charades. He does his mimicry best in a pub scene, in Cockney English, concerning a certain Lil, whose soldier-husband, in the days before contraceptives, has worn her down with his appetite for sex. It ends, famously, as the bartender calls out, "Hurry up please it's time"—suggesting judgment is imminent—and the customers go off with a drunken "Goonight."

This painful vision of humanity swept up in lust continues in Part Three, "The Fire Sermon," which takes its name from the preachment of Buddha about all things being consumed by desire. Again Eliot replays an English masterpiece, the Renaissance wedding ode of Edmund Spenser, "Prothalamion," which chants in a refrain, "Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song." But "The Waste Land," no celebratory flow, evokes the shores of a wintry Thames River long after the casual lovers have left their sandwich paper, silk handkerchiefs and bottles. "The nymphs are departed. / And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors."

Eliot's imagery takes a step into the nightmarish, a surreal world of the grinning skeleton, the "rat's foot creeping," plus "white bodies naked on the low damp ground / and bones cast in a little low dry garret" (a gruesome fusing of sex and death). Yet the passage ends with a wistful reminder of innocence—children's song resounding in a cupola.

Then Part Three unfurls its narratives of desire. In the first, very briefly, a Near Eastern merchant makes his oily offer of a homosexual weekend. Then, at length, we watch the loveless connection of a typist and the "small house agent's clerk" who comes to her apartment, "one of the low on whom assurance sits / as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire." "She is bored and tired;" but since "his vanity requires no response," he takes his sexual pleasure. We don't get the graphic details, but rather a quick intervention from the narrator of this tawdry scene, Tiresias, the mythical peeping Tom, who has "foresuffered all / enacted on this same divan or bed."

Throughout "The Waste Land" Eliot sows allusions to "The Tempest," Shakespeare's late romance in which a mysterious providential action saves the victims of shipwreck. The quester quotes: "This music crept by me upon the waters." The music, in this one bright spot, comes from a public bar in Lower Thames Street that still preserves sociability and a dignity from the past.

Eliot then changes the cadence for a short-line impressionistic contrast of the mercantile present (oily merchant ships coming up the tide) with a regal past (Queen Elizabeth with her favorite, Leicester, in a Cleopatra-like barge on the Thames). After which come some brief exempla of lust, in women's voices, and concluding words from the Buddha—"burning burning burning burning"—along with the exclamation of relief from the once lustful Augustine: "O Lord thou pluckest me out."

In Part Four, "Death by Water," our poet delivers a quick, highly concentrated homily on the fate of an adventurer-quester of the old Mediterranean, a Phoenician sailor. He undergoes the judgment of the sea. The intoning voice aims this homily at the reader, who still has his Tarot card with the seaman's picture.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Ezra Pound, Eliot's self-proclaimed mentor, had the chance to blue pencil many a line from the original version of "The Waste Land," which the poet showed him in Paris, as he was returning to London from Lausanne. Pound's surgery was most radical for Part Four, which he clipped down (much to its benefit) to the size reproduced above. The author responded with a dedication naming Pound, in words from Dante, il miglior fabbro, "the best of workmen."

Now comes the most powerful and challenging section of "The Waste Land," Part Five, "What the Thunder Said" (a phrase from a Hindu Upanishad), asking whether rain will come to our parched souls, or life return to our society panting for grace. Eliot intertwines allusions to the storming of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks, Christ's agony in the garden, the collapse of Babylon according to the Apocalypse and the finding of the Holy Grail. Consider the following passage, which plays on the theme of the Mysterious Stranger. The reader comes away asking, Do we have here aPage 265  |  Top of Article beneficent Christ on the road to Emmaus, or a menacing specter?

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

The concluding lines of "The Waste Land" do not so much resolve The question, How shall things end up for us? as pose a three-part challenge, in a voice of thunder: GIVE of yourself, "in the awful daring of a moment's surrender" (which may be what Eliot did in his costly marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood); SYMPATHIZE, get through to others, who are so much like yourself, "each in his prison / thinking of the key"; CONTROL: Exert some loving initiative and expect some beloved's response.

Not to end his potpourri of a poem neatly, because there is no neat resolution to our affairs, Eliot concludes it with a shower of one-line allusions, signaling collapse of society, then expiation, then urge for innocence. His final words are a Hindu invocation, almost a blessing, for the reader whom he has pulled through this ordeal: Shantih shantih shantih ("Peace," three times).

To the initiate, "The Waste Land"—brilliant if maddening pastiche, anguished outcry against human impurity, meditation on the decline of the West-has an endless fascination. In its 75th year it remains as elusive, as haunting, as thought-provoking as ever.

The 1990's do not happen to be a good season for T. S. Eliot stock, which was once soaring. Political correctness has banished him into outer darkness for some stereotypes of Jews that seem present in earlier poems and, in his longing for a Christian society, for drawing the boundaries a bit tight. Already in Eliot's day some contemporaries bemoaned and rued the ascendancy of this dizzying poem. William Carlos Williams, in his fervent desire for more writing "in the American grain" and his battle against dependence on the European tradition, wrung his hands and declared that "The Waste Land" had set our poetry back at least a generation.

What to say about this attack on "The Waste Land" for its allusiveness? The first thing is to acknowledge plainly that it takes form as a brilliant Ph.D. exam on European literature and culture, a genre that does not admit repeating. Eliot never tried the method again himself. But what a fine vehicle it proved to be for meditating on the fate of civilization after World War I—and in particular for probing, radically, the most precious documents of the Great Tradition. Eliot was also ciphering his own struggle with sin and for sanity and salvation.

In short, "The Waste Land" is still worth every penny that John Quinn offered in obeisance to it and, with all the reservations one might muster, it remains sans pareil.

Source: James Torrens, "T. S. Eliot: 75 years of The Waste Land," in America, Vol. 177, No. 12, October 25, 1997, pp. 24–27.


Aiken, Conrad, "An Anatomy of Melancholy," in New Republic, Vol. 33, No. 427, February 7, 1923, pp. 294–95.

Brooker, Jewel Spears, "T. S. Eliot," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45: American Poets, 1880–1945, First Series, edited by Peter Quartermain, Gale Research, 1986, pp. 150–81.

Cooper, John Xiros, T. S. Eliot and the Politics of Voice: The Argument of "The Waste Land," UMI Research Press, 1987.

Eliot, T. S., The Waste Land, in The Waste Land and Other Poems, edited by Frank Kermode, Penguin Books, 1998, pp. 53–69.

Ellmann, Richard, "The First Waste Land-I," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 8, November 8, 1971, pp. 10, 12, 14–16.

Hargrove, Nancy Duvall, "T. S. Eliot," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 151–72.

Torrens, James S., "T. S. Eliot: 75 Years of 'The Waste Land,' " in America, Vol. 177, October 25, 1997, pp. 24–27.

Vendler, Helen, "T. S. Eliot," in Time, Vol. 151, No. 22, June 8, 1998, p. 108.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed., T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (Modern Critical Interpretations), Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

Bloom collects criticism on The Waste Land from the 1950s to the 1980s, some of which was publishedPage 266  |  Top of Article here for the first time. In addition, the book includes an introduction by Bloom, a chronology, and a bibliography.

Conrad, Winston Stuart, Hemingway's France: Images of the Lost Generation, Woodford Publishing, 2000.

While this photo-essay book focuses on Hemingway's life, by extension it also encompasses many of the influential figures from the Lost Generation, including Eliot. Conrad's modern-day color photographs of France are juxtaposed against vintage black-and-white photos of the background and various writers and artists who lived and worked in France after World War I.

Fitch, Noel Riley, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, W. W. Norton, 1983.

The influence of Sylvia Beach and her Paris book-shop on the writers of the Lost Generation is well known. Fitch's history draws from the Beach family papers to chronicle her experiences with these authors, including Eliot.

Keegan, John, The First World War, Knopf, 1999.

While many books have been written about World War I, Keegan's is widely acknowledged as one of the most comprehensive, accurate, and non-biased versions. Keegan, a noted historian, draws on original records to create a narrative that guides readers through the complex causes and events of the war.

Moody, A. David, ed., The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Moody's book offers a comprehensive overview of Eliot's life and work. Contributors examine everything from Eliot's philosophical background to his impact on twentieth-century poetry, offering both critical and biographical insights in the process. The book includes a chapter on The Waste Land, a chronology, and a list of suggested further readings.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3422400027